Tobor the Great

Rating: 4 out of 10.

A boy befriends a giant robot in this independent film from 1954. Despite the clunky red scare spy subplot attached, this is pure cotton candy kiddie fare, remembered today only for its impressive robot design. 4/10

Tobor the Great. 1954, USA. Directed by Lee Sholem. Written by Philip MacDonald & Carl Dudley. Starring: Charles Drake, Karin Booth, Billy Chapin, Taylor Holmes, Steven Geray, Franklyn Farnum, William Schallert, Lyle Talbot. Produced by Richard Goldstone. IMDb: 5.2/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Boys and robots have gone hand in hand since the fifties (thankfully, Hollywood is slowly realising there are plenty of girls who like robots as well). Tobor the Great is really the starting point for films about boys and their robots, a subgenre that has been getting mauled with steadily declining Transformers movies in the last years. Where robots had primarily been depicted as threats in the few instants they had appeared on previous movies, Tobor the Great was one of the first to be used for good.

Dr. Ralph Harrison (Charles Drake) quits his job at a sort of proto-NASA, because he is fed up with the agency’s disregard for human life in their dangerous tests for a space flight. He is sought out by Professor Arnold Nordstrom (Taylor Holmes), who presents a solution: a robot test pilot, named Tobor, which he has perfected in the basement laboratory of his remote mansion. Also present at the mansion is the pre-teen science genius and general trouble-maker Brian Roberts, nicknamed Gadge (Billy Chapin) and his conveniently widowed mother Janice Roberts (Karin Booth), who naturally becomes Harrison’s love interest.

Under utmost secrecy, Prof. Nordstrom calls together a dozen of America’s foremost science journalists to unveil his masterpiece, a giant shining man out of metal, controlled for now via remote. Nordstrom is perfecting a system of telepathic communication, which for now only works crudely: when approached with an intent of attack, Tobor can sense aggressive emotions, and retaliates. When approached with friendliness, he acts cordially. Tobor follows basic programming, but is able to make his own decisions within a set of parameters. Most importantly, to simulate a human pilot’s instinct, he is equipped with human emotions. The idea is that after some final tweaking, Tobor is going to be controlled telepathically all through his test flight by a controller on the ground. After the demonstration of the robot, Nordstrom and Harrison realise that one of the journalists present was in fact an ”enemy” spy, out to get the secret of Nordstrom’s work.

J. Lewis Smith in robot costume with Billy Chapin.

Spying on the secret meeting (with the consent of Prof. Nordstrom), young Gadge can’t stop himself from trying out the big toy when the lab is empty. However, the remote control is too complicated for him, and Tobor promptly walks up the stairs to the mansion and starts trashing the house until finally Gadge manages to work out the joystick, and has the robot return to its station. As he walks up to his room, embarrassed, the three adults simply smile lovingly at the destruction Tobor has wrought, and marvel at the fact that Gadge was able to work out the controls in just ten minutes.

Testing on the robot continues, among other things Tobor trains as a pilot by playing something that looks eerily reminiscent of the arcade game Asteroids, and just as anyone who’s ever played it, the robot acts out in a fit when it loses. However, as testing goes on, it becomes clear that Gadge has some special bond with Tobor, and is able to control him with his thoughts, just as Tobor seems to have some affection for Gadge.

But alas, this is a kiddie film, and we can’t just have science. We must also have some cops and robbers action, and that’s the cue for ”the enemy”, a bunch of burly Russian-sounding baddies that kidnap Nordstrom and Gadge, and steal the remote control, and threaten to burn the kid with a blow torch if Nordstrom doesn’t give up the manual for the remote. But Tobor and Harrison, along with the military, are right on their heels. What will happen? Will the commies (sorry, ”the enemy”) get the US military secrets, or will America once again prevail?

Charles Drake, Billy Chapin and Taylor Holmes.

Tobor the Great was produced by Richard Goldstone for Carl Dudley’s Dudley Pictures Corporation, and filmed at Republic Studios, formerly the number one studio for cheap film serials, and later a Poverty Row studio. According to film historian Bill Warren, Tobor the Great was announced in 1952, and in 1953 Hollywood Reporter described it as much more of a serious drama, about an automatic test pilot for space travel. According to the magazine, the lead would be played by the brainy sci-fi star Richard Carlson, then hot off the success of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953, review), and directed by Edward Ludwig, who had just done the anti-communist drama Big Jim McLain, starring John Wayne and James Arness. It would be filmed in widescreen and Eastman color. However, Goldstone and Dudley weren’t able to haul in enough dough for that kind of a production, and when the film was finally released, Carlson had been replaced by the lesser known actor Charles Drake, a staple supporting actor and star of a few B programmers, and in Ludwig’s place was Lee ”Roll ‘Em” Sholem, one of the masters of no-budget quickies in the fifties, a sort of heir to William ”One-Shot” Beaudine and Sam Newfield. It was also filmed in black-and-white, and was clearly aimed at a kiddie audience.

The film starts off with some very interesting notions, probably left over from Carl Dudley’s first draft. It seems unlikely that Dudley would have initially included the juvenile content, as his other credits are almost entirely for travelogue documentaries, which he both produced and directed. He also seems to have had an obsession with Nostradamus, about whom he made two films. But Tobor the Great sticks out like a sore thumb in his resumé. How Dudley came to be story writer and executive producer on this movie is beyond me, but I’m sure it has some interesting story behind it. The actual screenplay was written by Philip MacDonald, a very popular author of mystery novels in the thirties.

The crew with Tobor in a promo shot.

As a children’s film the movie does its job. There are countless witnesses throughout the web that give testament to the fact that kids under twelve were mesmerised by the movie when it was released. Of course it’s a bit unfair to go nitpicking logic in a kiddie film, but on the other hand, but this film is based on a few assumptions that are so dumb that even a kid will pick them apart. The first is the fact that the robot is gigantic — of course, that makes for a more fun movie, but it is a terrible choice for a test pilot. And does the robot really need legs to operate the controls? And will it even be able to do so with the gigantic pincers he has for hands? Another question that arises is the purpose of the press conference that Dr. Nordstrom calls together, which is the starting point of all the drama. The premise is that the Tobor is still a top-secret project in progress, and no-one outside the lab should yet be informed of it — thus he forbids the journalists to write anything about it. Even a child will ask the question: If no-one is allowed to write about it, then why oh why did Nordstrom invite a whole bunch of journalists to look at the robot? And lastly: FORGET THE FRIGGING ROBOT, DR. NORDSTROM HAS INVENTED TELEPATHY!

I have not been able to dig up any contemporary reviews on Tobor the Great, but one can imagine that the film was more popular with its juvenile audiences than with the critics. If it is remembered today, it is because of its cool-looking metal protagonist, rather than its plot, which is routine. It holds a middle-of-the-road 5.4/10 rating on IMDb, and Bruce Eder at AllMovie gives it 2/5 stars. Eder writes: “Tobor The Great is not a bad idea for a movie, though surprisingly enough it is executed badly by a director from whom one might have expected more — Lee Sholem was an action movie specialist”. Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide calls it “a botched attempt at a heartwarming sci-fi comedy-thriller” and TV Guide stamps it a “mild juvenile melodrama […] aimed solely at arousing sentiment”. John Stanley in Creature Features gives the film 1.5/5 stars, writing: “Clanking sounds do not emanate from from the mechanical man of the title, but from the rusty mind of director Lee Sholem“. However, Bruce Eder comments: “The passage of time has imbued it with some added nostalgia appeal, owing to its period detail and sensibilities”.

Karin Booth and Charles Drake.

The beginning of the film toys with the same idea as the British TV series The Quatermass Experiment (1953, review) – the fear of what might come to pass if humans were sent as guinea pigs into space, an idea that would be built upon for decades to come. However, the movie never expands on the initial thought, as it quickly becomes all about a boy and his robot and a very tired commie spy plot (yes, it was old and tired even in 1954). But for a kiddie film about a pet robot the movie isn’t half bad, and probably could spellbind children under the age of say, seven, even today. For an adult viewer it’s pretty tough going, though. The direction is flat and TV-like, but professional. There had been better robots on film, and Tobor would certainly be out-done by some later entries of the fifties, but for the time it’s a pretty impressive feat, especially considering the budget and background of the film. Quite fun in a naive kind of way, and well worth a lazy Saturday afternoon watch.

There’s really not much to say about the acting. Charles Drake does the best poor man’s Richard Carlson he can muster, but is naturally outplayed by Gadge and Tobor as soon as the movie picks up steam. Billy Chapin is your typical Gosh wow! and Gee wilikers! kid in the Leave It to Beaver-vein, and he’s okay – kids in the fifties can’t be blamed for the way screenwriters wrote the roles for kids in the fifties. Chapin, 11 at the time, appeared in over 30 films or TV shows in the fifties. Karin Booth, a second-tier B movie actress, is bland, but so is her role.

Tobor in the driver’s seat.

Professor Nordstrom is the most pleasant role of the film. Respected character actor Taylor Holmes does his best Edmund Gwenn impersonation, and pulls it off rather well. Steven Geray, born Istvan Gyergyay plays yet another Eastern European villain. Not the character actor’s proudest moment, but he pulls it off well regarding the material. Among the bit-parts we see a few sci-fi stalwarts like Franklyn Farnum, William Schallert, Lyle Talbot, Franz Roehn and Hal Baylor.

The music by Hollywood workhorse Howard Jackson is functioning. The editing by Oscar nominated Basil Wrangell is shoddy.

It should be pointed out that this wasn’t the first Tobor to invade people’s homes. The first robot called Tobor made an appearance in the TV show Captain Video and His Video Rangers (review) in 1953. I wrote in my article on that series: ”The name of Tobor was actually a mistake. The constantly rushed costume and props department created an adhesive stencil for the robot, but didn’t take into account that when drawing on the paper that protected the sticky side of the laminate, the words came out backwards when sticked on to the costume. The stencil was supposed to read ROBOT-I, but became I-TOBOR. When they realised their mistake there simply wasn’t enough time to make a new stencil. So the mistake became canon.” The Tobor of Captain Video and the Tobor of Tobor the Great have nothing in common but the name.

Robot evolution in Hollywood: From left to right: Chani from Devil Girl from Mars (1954), the “Republic robot” from Undersea Kingdom (1937) and the robot from Master Mystery (1919).

When I first encountered Tobor the Great, there was a lot of confusion both regarding the lineage of the character of Tobor and the designer of the robot in the movie. Several sources named legendary robot maker and art director Robert Kinoshita as the designer of Tobor, possibly because of a mixup between his creations, Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956, review) and B9 from the sixties TV series Lost in Space. There’s the front grille, the glass-domed head, the use of round and circular forms, the pincer hands and the fact that all the robots have faces that vaguely conjure up the idea of a face without actually having faces. And Tobor does have that slightly Japanese touch: the slanted ”shoulder pads” and the overlapping metal ”skirts” of Tobor resemble that of a samurai armour – something Kinoshita would have been familiar with due to his ethnic background.

However, after some detective work of my own, I could find no reliable sources that Kinoshita was in any way involved in Tobor the Great, and concluded that the misinformation had spread on the web due to false information on the film’s Wikipedia page. I did find a design sketch of the robot auctioned off after the death of the film’s art director Gabriel Scognamillo. I present it to you below, courtesy of Bud Brewster on the brilliant Monster Kid Classic Horror Forum – he has received a crappy photo of it and enhanced it. The interesting bit here is that it is signed ”G. Scognamillo. 9/6/53”. The robot in the film does differ from the sketch in a number of ways, but there’s no doubt that Scognamillo’s drawing is the blueprint for the robot that was actually built.

Early concept art by Gabriel Scognamillo. Pic courtesy of Bud Brewster.

Some further digging led me to the person who actually put together the practical suit for stuntman J. Lewis Smith to wear: Mel Arnold, who also worked on Gort for The Day the Earth Stood Still. I got hold of Fred Barton, who has spent four decades replicating old movie robots, including B9, Robby the Robot and Tobor. In an e-mail Barton confirmed my suspicions: “Kinoshita had ZERO involvement with Tobor. I knew Bob (Kinoshita)for many years. /…/ He had no involvement with Tobor in any capacity. I know he didn’t design it, and he never claimed he did.” Barton also kindly provided me with yet another concept art photo by Scognamillo, and from this picture (featured below), it is instantly clear that Scognamillo’s design was what was put on screen. With some minor differences, this later concept art for Tobor is basically the robot that we see in the film. A big thanks to Fred Barton! Do visit his website!

However: Robert Kinoshita IS credited on IMDb for ”robot art” on the pilot for the 1957 unrealised TV series Here Comes Tobor. What exactly ”robot art” is supposed to mean is unclear, but since they used the same robot in the pilot as they did in the film, he can’t have designed it for the TV series. Fred Barton tells me that it is possible that Kinoshita did some art direction on Here Comes Tobor, but that it is news for him: “Ask Tobor, but he’s not talking.”

Finished design by Gabriel Scognamillo. Thanks to Fred Barton for the image.

Robert Kinoshita did work as set designer, and later art director and production designer on a number of films and in particular TV series, like Highway Patrol (1956-1959) and Ivan Tors’ Sea Hunt (1958-1961), as well as the afore-mentioned Lost in Space (1965-1967). His work on sci-fi films include The Black Sheep (1956) and The Phantom Planet (1961), as well as the TV movies The Six Million Dollar Man: Wine, Women and War (1973) and Planet Earth (1974). He also worked on five different sci-fi TV series.

Italian-born Gabriel Scognamillo worked in France in the early thirties before relocating to Hollywood in 1936. In France he worked, among other things, on Jean Renoir’s controversial La chienne (1931) and Ernst Lubitsch’s La veuve joyeuse. Even though steadily employed in the US, he didn’t really start to make a name for himself in Hollywood until the fifties. He was nominated for an Oscar for his work on The Story of Three Loves (1953), and is perhaps best known for his work on George Pal’s 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, a film that is special in the regard that William Tuttle received a special Oscar for his makeup in the movie, 17 years before the makeup Oscar was introduced as a regular award. Melbourne A. Arnold, who built Tobor as a suit did, as mentioned, work on The Day the Earth Stood Still. After Tobor the Great, IMDb has a guge gap in his career, and his name comes up again as special effects creator as late as 1981, and he seems to have worked on a little less than an dozen films in the eighties.

Fred Barton and his Tobor replicas.

The original Tobor suit actually exists to this day, even though it has a rather strange story, as summed up by Bill Warren’s book Keep Watching the Skies!. Seems an antique dealer bought the suit at an auction in 1965. Famous prop collector Bob Burns says that he arranged to buy it from the dealer for 1,000 dollars, but when he arrived he was told that the suit had been stolen from the dealer’s front lawn. Burns says that he thought it odd that the man wasn’t at all sad about the whole incident, and even odder that someone could have stolen such a big and heavy metal suit (Burns had four guys and a pickup truck with him to move it) without anyone noticing. Later Burns found out that the antique dealer had insured it for 10,000 dollars. However, eventually the suit seems to have been sold or passed on, as it resurfaced in 2008, when Fred Barton and John Rigg met with the then owner to make moulds of the original. Barton now sells full-size, screen-accurate metal Tobor suits through his website.

Director Lee ”Roll ‘Em” Sholem was known for his quick shooting pace and efficiency. After working in the editing department for Sol Lesser’s company for some years, he got into directing with the latter Tarzan films starring Lex Barker in the late forties. He directed the first Superman feature film, Superman and the Mole-Men (1951), and went on to direct several episodes of the TV series Adventures of Superman, starring legendary George Reeves and his shoulder and chest padding. He also directed some episodes of Criswell Predicts, a live show featuring TV fortune teller Criswell, best known to a modern audience for appearing in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). He he worked on Men into Space (1959-1960), and his last film was Doomsday Machine (1972), a film that he was assigned to save after two directors had failed to complete it. According to himself, he directed close to 1 300 entries on film or TV, although IMDb only lists about 300 – although the website only credits him with a handful of episodes on TV series where he did do a lot more work.

Director Lee Sholem, the right pictured with George “Superman” Reeves.

In Tom Weaver’s book Interviews with B Science Fiction and Horror Movie Makers he describes legendary Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller as an extremely likeable guy. Although he says ”He wasn’t the most intelligent guy in the world, and so those Tarzan and Jungle Jim parts were perfect for him. They didn’t require a lot of brains, they just required a good physique.” Weissmuller’s heir as Tarzan, Rex Barker, he remembers as an egomaniac – up to the point that for his birthday the crew bought a big mirror. Sholem also tells the story of how his wife discovered one of the lesser known Tarzan actors, Gordon Scott, and how he himself tried to convince Sol Lesser of an actress for the part of Jane. Sholem didn’t think she was that much of an actress, but she looked great. He had her up eight different times to read for Lesser, but couldn’t convince him. That was a young Marilyn Monroe.

Lesser tells Weaver that he secret to shooting fast wasn’t in rushing, but in being prepared. He says that he learned from legendary art director and occasional director William Cameron Menzies how to, first, lay out a set so that it was efficient to shoot on, and then block all the scenes and shots in advance, with pencil on paper, so he could show the actors exactly what they would be doing for each scene, the crew exactly what shots and set-ups would be required almost by the minute. He got so efficient in this that when filming the Superman series, he could do ten pages of script in a single take, just by planning ahead and having the actors come to the camera, rather than the other way around – almost like a reahearsed theatre play (in fact, Sholem got his start as a theatre director). Sholem also described himself in Filmfax magazine as a ”rough guy, a tough guy to work for”, and in the book Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave: 1959-1969, the DP of Catalina Caper (1967) Ted V. Mikels said that the young cast of that movie was terrified of Sholem, who’d run the shoot like the military: ”He was probably a nice enough guy in his private life but [on set] he was very aggressive, forceful and determined.” Sholem passed away in 2000 at the respectable age of 99.

Charles Drake giving it to a commie bad guy.

The special effects of the Tobor the Great are a mix of some innovation and tired stock footage of V2 rockets, the same shots used endlessly in sci-fi movies of the fifties. Apart from the robot itself, there’s not much special in the special effects department, apart from what you usually get from low-budget action films of the era. Responsible for the effects were the renowned ”Lydecker Twins Theodore and Howard, who were in fact not twins at all. The brothers were in charge of the special effects department of Republic Studios from its founding in 1935 to its demise in 1956, with younger Howard as the nominal head of the department, and therefore the one that often got screen credit. IMDb credits them for over 300 films, serials and TV series, but they probably worked on even more. Howard was nominated for Oscars for Women in War (1940) and Flying Tigers (1942), and won an Emmy for his work on the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in 1964.

The Lydeckers worked on all of Republic’s legendary sci-fi and superhero serials in the thirties and forties. Howard did the impressive special effects for Invaders from Mars (1953, review) and Theodore worked on the first brain-in-a-vat film The Lady and the Monster (1944, review). They both served as consultants on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, review) and worked on Panther Girl of the Kongo (1955). Howard also did the effects for The Underwater City (1962), Way… Way Out (1966) and Our Man Flint (1966).

Off for a walk.

Screenwriter Philip MacDonald was a former British WWI soldier who had relocated to California and started dabbling in screenwriting as early as 1930. His main literary output was mystery and spy novels, often whodunnits and gruesome serial killer stories. He did, however, occasionally dabble in science fiction, and two of his four sci-fi short stories have often been included in anthologies. He contributed to the script of Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review), and his story Private – Keep Out! was adapted into an episode of the TV series Lights Out! (1946-1952, review). Although not a sci-fi film per se, he was Hugo nominated for the well-regarded Boris Karloff film The Body Snatcher (1945). He also contributed to the scripts of films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) and the war drama Sahara (1943), starring Humphrey Bogart. His best known mystery novel is The List of Adrian Messenger (1959), turned into a film by the same name in 1963 by John Huston and starring Kirk Douglas, perhaps best remembered for containing a slew of cameos by famous Hollywood actors, such as Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster and Frank Sinatra.

Cinematographer John L. Russell is of some interest. Russell was a B movie cinematographer who did extensive TV work, and through his work on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour found himself working with the master himself on the visual masterpiece Psycho (1960) – a film that stands head and shoulders above anything else he did in his career. But Russell also did some very good work on a few science fiction films like The Man from Planet X (1951, review) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953, review), and some not-so-good work on Invasion U.S.A. (1952, review), The Atomic Kid (1954, review) and Indestructible Man (1956, review).

All’s well that ends well.

Set decorator Edward G. Boyle won an Oscar for The Apartment (1961) and also worked on Donovan’s Brain (1953, review), The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Invaders from Mars and Panther Girl of the Kongo. His colleauge, twice Oscar nominated veteran of Republic John McCarthy Jr., also worked on The Reluctant Astronaut (1967), Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1972). Republic makeup artist Bob Mark also did work on Panther Girl of the Kongo, Hand of Death (1962), The Human Duplicators (1965), the TV series Lost in Space and a number of sci-fi films for TV.

Janne Wass

Tobor the Great. 1954, USA. Directed by Lee Sholem. Written by Philip MacDonald & Carl Dudley. Starring: Charles Drake, Karin Booth, Billy Chapin, Taylor Holmes, Steven Geray, Henry Kulky, Franz Roehn, Hal Baylor, Peter Brocco, Jack Daly, Franklyn Farnum, Art Gilmore, William Schallert, Robert Shayne, Lyle Talbot. Music: Howard Jackson. Cinematography: John L. Russell. Editing: Basil Wrangell. Art direction: Gabriel Scognamillo. Makeup supervisor: Bob Mark. Sound: T.A. Carman, Howard Wilson. Special effects: Howard Lydecker, Theodore Lydecker. Robot builder: Melbourne A. Arnold. Produced by Richard Goldstone for Dudley Pictures Corporation.

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